Inspirational Starling overcomes disability
Note from Byron: From David Cordes of our Ridgecrest club. A great example of what our program was meant to be….and the occasional rewards that come and make the work worth it all.
My family and I just got home from the first vacation we have taken since I started this club. We had a blast, even the family reunion was enjoyable. Now that I’m home again I have been closing out the club season – paperwork, bookkeeping, collecting and repairing equipment, etc. I’m still running open volleyball for members of the club twice a week. We don’t get too much turnout for the open volleyball, but the girls that do show up are having fun.
While on vacation I remembered that I forgot to do something very important at Nationals. I had a player on my 15s team this season that I really wanted you to meet. But my team struggled on day one and I got so wrapped up with getting those girls through the next two days that I forgot to ask you to stop by while we were playing so I could introduce you to her.
So if you don’t mind, I would like to tell you a little about her.
I first saw Naomi play during the middle school season. She was the coach’s daughter. She was also one of her teams more dynamic players. But watching her play I could tell there was something just not quite right about the girl. At first I thought that she was playing with an injured shoulder. I was originally kind of pissed off that her coach/mom would allow her to continue playing hurt. But she did play, and she led her team to a be one of only two teams that managed to beat my city championship winning team during the regular season.
So when Naomi walked into the gym with her mother at my Starlings kick-off meeting this year I was happy to see her there. While I was describing club volleyball, and what to expect from this season to the players and parents Naomi and her mother sat huddled together, looking worried. But when I got to describing what being a Starlings team meant, and why we were special and more than just a regular juniors volleyball club, both of them seemed to brighten up a bit. After the meeting we sent the girls out to the gym for a workout so we could get a look at the skill and talent levels we were dealing with. While this was going on I was looking at the head count of players and discovered that my club was still suffering from the fallout of my team that all quit last year. Some of those girls, not content to just quit my club and go out of town to play, had been very active at convincing several other older players that we are a bad club and that they should go out of town to play also. So we had a limited number of older players.
Eventually we only had 9 girls old enough to play 16s or 18s. While our five 16 year old players were probably going to be only mediocre 16s and definitely were not ready to play 18s we explained the situation to them and they all agreed that they would rather play 18s than not play at all. Then I looked at the rest of the club – I had a pretty even split of 15s, 14s with a fair number of 11 and 12 year old players. But the skill and experience levels wihin each age group were all over the chart. I had 14s and 15s year old players with 2-4 years club experience, and others who had never been on a court before. Dividing this group of girls up strictly by age – the way I prefer to do things, would have probably produced three teams that would have torn themselves apart during the season. I was afraid that combining several experienced players with a bunch of first time beginners was going to be a recipe for disaster. So I decided to hold tryouts for a #1-15s team, a #2-15s team and everyone else would be on a young 14s team.
When I gathered the girls together and announced that we were going to have tryouts – Naomi looked crushed. Her mother looked angry. You see, one of Naomi’s best friends was a founding member of my volleyball club. For three years she had been nagging Naomi to come play. But Naomi’s mother who had some previous experience with a couple different volleyball clubs in Bakersfield just knew that we would take one look at Naomi and tell her no. She didn’t want to have to deal with that level of rejection of her daughter. Naomi’s friend, kept telling her that we were not like that. That we were Starlings and that I wouldn’t do that to her. But they didn’t believe her. Naomi’s Mom had taken her older sister to Bakersfield to play on regular juniors teams several years earlier and she described the experience to me as “Rotten! The clubs and players were elitist, snobbish, and filled with spoiled, snotty little princesses.” She was convinced that club volleyball was not something that she wanted her youngest daughter involved with. But Naomi and grown up listening to her Mom talk about playing volleyball in high school and college. And she watched her sister play in high school, and get a couple offers to play in college, but she turned them down to join the Air Force. And now Naomi had decided that she wanted to be a volleyball player also. They were there that night because Naomi kept insisting, and her mother was just tired of fighting her about it. But they came prepared to be disappointed. So when they heard the words “try-outs” they knew that there was no chance Naomi would be allowed to play. But when I said “No, don’t panic, no one goes out the door because of these tryouts. It is still my club policy to take every girl who wants to play, as long as we have enough coaches to teach them. We will have tryouts for which team you will play on.” both Naomi and her mother relaxed a little.
During tryouts I got a chance to really watch Naomi play. She was awkward. She reminded me a lot of a right handed player – trying to play left handed. But it wasn’t until we started running a setting drill that I really noticed the problem. Naomi could only lift her right hand about as high as her chin. Her fingers didn’t open – they stayed curled, half open in odd positions. What I had thought was a shoulder injury during the middle school season I suddenly realized was a permanent disability.
Eventually I learned that Naomi suffered a Brachial Plexus Injury when she was born. The nerve bundle that branches out of her spine and controls her entire right arm was torn during her birth. She was born with a limp right arm that just hung there – no feeling and no
movement. A century ago her arm would have been amputated when she was still a baby. As she grew she had a couple experimental surgeries. They took some muscle and nerve tissue from her left shoulder and attached it to her right shoulder. As she grew this allowed her some limited movement and a little feeling in parts of her arm. So as Naomi grew, and recovered from surgeries she spent her childhood just trying to just gain enough control and strength to learn to do small useful things with her arm.
Now, here she was trying to become a one-armed club volleyball player. During the setting drill, her sets were not sets. They were all double hits and none of them went anywhere even close to the direction where she was supposed to set them. On her fourth time through the line I remarked “Setting isn’t really your strong suit is it?” Hoping this would serve as an opening for her to explain to me what was going on with her arm. But she just smiled, laughed, said “Nope!” and ran to the end of the line. Out of curiosity I let this drill go on for a while longer, partially to see what Naomi would do, and to look at a couple other setters. Naomi came through that line a total of 15 times, with me standing right there at the standard watching her – and failed to even remotely perform anything resembling a set – 15 times in a row. Finally I ended the drill because I was afraid that her frustration level was going to cause her to explode. I called for a water break then stopped her and asked “Why did you keep setting that way? Why didn’t you try passing when you weren’t able to set?” Her response was simply “You told us to set.” And she ran off to get a drink.
The rest of the try-out was pretty much more of the same – lots of hustle, lots of determination and lots of failures by Naomi.
When the tryouts were over I had to pick 10 players to be on my #1-15s team. Seven of the them were automatic choices for me. Then I took a few gambles – I took a 12 year old. Which if you knew me, you would know is a real stretch. One of my firmest beliefs as a club coach and director is that girls should be playing on age appropriate teams (14s on 14s, 15s on 15s, etc). And for me to put a 12 year old on a 15s team was a huge gamble. But I knew that our 14s team was going to be a team of weak first time players, and I believed that this particular 12 year old, needed a good more advanced team to play for. I also took a 15 year old setter who was not the best setter in the gym, had a personality that could make a statue laugh. And I took Naomi. At the time I didn’t know what was up with her arm, but her hustle, determination and general attitude had me intrigued and a little curious. Every rational thought I had told me that she was going to be a liability to any team and I should put her on the 14s team and just hope she could get through the season. But I have had a lot of wise, experienced coaches, directors and friends this last year telling me that I have to trust my gut and my heart, and do what I believe is the right thing to do. And my heart and gut were screaming – “give her a chance.” Once I decided to gamble on Naomi, I didn’t feel right making one of my other coaches have to take that gamble. So I put her on my team.
After we announced the teams and the next practice and dismissed the girls I got a chance to ask Naomi and her mother about what was up with her arm. That is when I learned the details of her disability. Naomi was essentially a one armed volleyball player. And to make matters worse, her brain is wired to be right handed. Which explained why she looked like a right handed player trying to play left handed. Her right arm is weak, has limited mobility, and flexibility. From a volleyball standpoint there was almost nothing Naomi could do with it to help her play.
In order to pass, she would grab her right hand with her left and drag her right arm over to where it needed to be. However that weak arm made for a weak platform, so almost everything she passed shanked to the right. At our very first practice as a team she quickly learned to set her platform so that her right arm started out higher than her left. Basically she angled her platform slightly left. That way when her
right arm flexed under impact with the ball, her platform would level out and the ball would rebound closer to where she wanted it to go. She worked all season learning how much to adjust her platform depending on how fast the ball she was passing was moving.
Very early on it became very obvious to me that Naomi didn’t want nor expect any special treatment. She attempted everything that everyone else on the team attempted. And if she failed she just tried again, and again, and again. Some things she managed, others she didn’t. But she never gave up, and never stopped working as hard or harder than any other player on the team.
I started out the season intent on trying to make Naomi a right side hitter, after all she’s a lefty. But after a couple months I moved her
to the outside. Her inability to get her right hand over the net when she blocked was a liability as a right side blocker. While classical volleyball thinking said that it shouldn’t work this way, she was just a more effective hitter on the left. With a little encouragement from me she developed an inside-out hitting approach. She started about 6 feet onto the court, behind the attack line, and took an approach towards the pin. This allows her to still get a full shoulder turn into her hits - hit down the line, and cross court. And more importantly – our opponents never looked for an attack coming from that spot on the court. Naomi was often unblocked because our opponents didn’t see a hitter making an outside approach at the ball, so they didn’t block. Our setters did have to get used to setting the outside when there was visually no hitter out there getting ready to hit. But eventually we all got used to the idea.
By the time we reached the midpoint of the season Naomi had made herself a valuable and dependable member of the team. She was almost always the first player at practice and the last to leave. She became one of our most reliable servers – often leading the team in serve percentage and usually 2nd or 3rd in ace percentage. Her top spin serve gave passers who were not used to leftys fits. She was always in the top four of the team in hitting and kill percentage. And was number one in both for two different tournaments. She wasn’t pretty to watch. Even as her footwork and arm swing improved she always looks a little awkward and off balance due to her arms not moving through the same range of motion or the same speed. But as a hitter she has an absolutely uncanny sense for meeting the ball as high as she could reach and for smacking the crap out of it. But beyond her hitting skills was her smarts. She caught on to offensive, defensive and serve receive theory faster than any girl I have ever coached.
She also learned to use the rules to her advantage. Once she learned that hard driven first balls were not subject to double hit calls – so she started learning to use her hands to take them. By the end of the season she was using both hands, or rather a hand and a fist to pass face high spikes and serves. When playing DS in the back row she learned how to use her shoulders, chest, and upper arms to dig with. She got really good at left handed only digs. She also learned to tempt hitters and servers to hit to her left side by leaving open, then
suddenly closing, gaps on the court.
In the mean time we worked on ways for her to try and use her right hand and arm in some useful way. We worked on it, but we never managed to get her to score a kill with that right arm. She developed a pretty good, but ugly looking, punch shot with that arm, but her reaction times were just too slow to use it in a game. Since all her movement with that arm are secondary movements (Because they are controlled by nerves and muscles from the left side of her body) she just isn’t able to react fast enough with it. However she did managed a couple digs with that arm. And using a torc serve technique – that involves all core muscles turning and a stiff straight arm she learned how to serve with it. But she was never was quite confident enough in it to try it in a game when her left handed serve was so effective.
Sure, she had her problems. We ran into a few teams that were smart enough to attack or serve at her right side, and she would struggle.
But we has worked out ways to shift the team around a bit to counter that. I did not once all season take her out of a game because she was being targeted or taken advantage of. There was twice I probably should of, but being an eternal optimist, I always believed she would make the next play. And sometimes it took her a few too many attempts before she managed. But then I had situations like that happen with every girl on the team during the season.
So that is a very brief description of Naomi, my one armed volleyball player who only wanted a chance to be a volleyball player. But this
story doesn’t really have a happy ending. At Nationals, in our last match. Naomi, diving for a ball had a teammate fall on her arm. She
hyper-extended the elbow of her right arm. So while our team rallied from the loss of Naomi and our starting setter in the second game, to eventually win game three and the match. Naomi spent her last game ever as a Ridgecrest Starling standing on the sidelines with an icepack on her elbow and tears running down her face. You see, Naomi’s Dad got a new job. She will be moving to just north of Las Vegas, Nevada before the next season starts. She will not be attending a high school with a girls volleyball program. There are a couple regular juniors clubs in the area, but they are expensive. Her family is thinking that they will not be able to afford them. Also, they are afraid that a normal juniors club will take one look at her smaller, weaker, almost non-functioning arm, and not even give her a chance. We don’t have a Starlings team in the Las Vegas area yet. Naomi’s competitive volleyball playing days may be over. Naomi and I haven’t given up trying to work out some options for her yet, but so far, it doesn’t look good.
But it’s not all bad news either. When her surgeon in Houston found out what had happened at Nationals he was almost giddy, which confused both Naomi and her Mom. Naomi had hurt her right elbow. She was on the court, doubled over in pain, cradling her damaged right elbow in her left hand – crying from the pain she was feeling – in an arm that was not supposed to have any feeling in it. They don’t know yet what this bodes for her future. But during one season of club volleyball Naomi’s right arm gained some feeling it hadn’t had before, a several inches of vertical reach, and one inch in circumference around her bicep. Any one of those things, according to her surgeon – should be considered almost miraculous. Oh, and after a couple weeks in a brace to let her elbow heal, Naomi is showing up regularly for open volleyball. She’s refining her jump serve and is working very hard to improve her blocking timing. Since she is blocking with only one hand she has to really read the hitter in order to get her hand in the right spot. (BTW she had 5 solo blocks during the season but thinks that number should be a lot higher). Finally, and the thing I am most proud of – she has learned how to set. Granted she is taking the ball low in front of her chin and neck, and she is handling it with the fingers on both hands. She is never going to be a setter. And she struggles with fast moving balls. But she can take a ball, and get it back into the air without any spin
on it, most of the time.
So how did my gambles from tryouts turn out – The 12 year old turned 13. She ended up being the first or second best player on the team in every position on the court. And is hands down the best all-around player on the team. She was the one girl on the team that I could put into any position on the court and not worry about her job getting done. She has beautiful hands, fast feet, wonderful balance and a great instinct for just going after every ball. Unfortunately, even the ones she shouldn’t be going after. She is young 13s, 5′ 10″ tall, and touches 9 feet when she jumps. She is tough, determined, and turning into a fantastic athlete. Her only flaw is that her first love is basketball. But she says she is willing to keep playing volleyball with me so I can keep trying to convince her that she loves volleyball more than basketball.
The setter who could make a statue laugh – kept me and her teammates smiling all season. Unfortunately due to several ankle injuries that slowed her down and kept her off the court a lot, her physical setting skills didn’t improve as much as either of us would have liked, but she was brilliant as a leader on the court. For a kid that was often being a total goofball, she showed more leadership and maturity on the court and could manage her hitters and our teams offense like no other teenage setter I have ever worked with.
And Naomi – well you just heard a lot about her. In addition to all her success on the court, what she did personally for me was even more
important. I have been under a lot of pressure from certain families and a couple coaches to change my club philosophy about taking all girls. They want me to reduce the number of girls and teams in the club from 40 girls and 4 teams to only about 25-30 girls and 3 teams. They think I should hold tryouts for the club and the teams in order to build the best, most competitive teams we can. They want to be able to get rid of the players that they think will not live up to their standards, or will hold them back. They want me to turn my Starlings Club into a normal juniors volleyball club.
So far my only counter to their arguments has been “We are a Starlings club – we give ALL girls a chance to fly. Not just the ones we like, or think will make us a better club.” What Naomi gave us this season is absolute proof that my way (the Starlings way) is the best way to run this club. I took a chance on a girl that most clubs would have not let play – and she became a valuable, productive member of her team. She turned out to be the perfect example of what a hard working, hard playing, determined young athlete should be. She always put the good of her team ahead of her own wishes and desires. And she never gave up, never stopped smiling, never stopped giving every single thing she did her very best effort. She turned out to be the kind of player I wish every single player in our club would be like – one or two armed. I guess the best way to describe her would be in Starlings terms – she really flew.
I only wish you would have had the chance to meet her.
Thanks for starting all this Byron, for setting an example for me to follow, for developing an organization that would make it possible for
athletes like Naomi to have the chance to try and make her dreams come true.
Director Ridgecrest Starlings Volleyball Club